Heart Attack

A sermon on Domestic Violence  Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton

November 23, 2014

The reading was entitled 7 Sobering Stats About Violence Against Women by George Stormboulopoulos


This summer domestic violence became the number one off-field issue for the National Football League.  Two high profile cases embarrassed the NFL.  Most upsetting  was the way league officials allegedly ignored strong video evidence for weeks (until it became public) before suspending one of its stars.

In Canada a lot of us were shocked and dismayed when the CBC fired their most popular radio host Jian Ghomeshi.  In the first reports it seemed like an advanced case of prudery from MotherCorp, but as events unfolded a different story emerged.  It was a story that featured violent and, more importantly,  non-consensual expressions of sexuality.  Ghomeshi’s fans melted away like snowflakes in an August storm.

As the allegations mounted two journalists Antonia Zerbisias of Toronto and Sue Montgomery of Montreal started the Twitter hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported.  It exploded on the internet.  Countless women and men have now provided 140 character powerful accounts of their violations.  Sue Montgomery is the pulpit guest at the Unitarian Church of Montreal this morning.

The NFL has announced a new, tough anti-domestic violence policy – a six-game suspension for a first offence and a lifetime ban for a second.  The players have spoken out strongly against this crime.  The CBC made it abundantly clear that it would not look the other way on cases of sexual assault.  And perhaps the hue and cry on the internet will bring change or, at the very least, do a little to end the loneliness and isolation of those victimized in such crimes.

(NB: I originally used the word ‘victim’ through ought this sermon.  One kind listener pointed out that such a label can be a permanent identifier, not recognizing that people can heal and move on.  She suggested I used the idea of people who have been abused or victimized.  I have edited this final version to reflect that wise insight. Thanks.)

But one must be cautious when scenes are played out in the media.  A sense of scope tends to get lost in the headlines.  For example, it is true that since 2000 48% of criminal charges laid against NFL players have been domestic violence related 83 cases to be precise. That’s upsetting.   However, it is also true that the domestic violence crime rate among NFL players is only half of the national average for all men.  In Canada, Jian Ghomeshi is but one high profile man.  The real problem of domestic violence lies elsewhere.  It’s not ‘out there’ – something we can tut-tut about over morning coffee.  It’s everywhere.  It’s here.  I can promise you that in this church of ours there are victims and odds say there are perpetrators too, though I have no personal knowledge of that.

When I was a child, a neighbour lady was so victimized by her husband for a longtime.  Of course, I didn’t know it at the time.  I never liked him, for he was a ‘cheek pincher’.  It often felt like he was ripping my face off.  I always liked her, she was very kind to me.  But this was the early sixties and she was a Catholic, so she stuck with him.  “You made your bed, so you lie in it” was a pretty common concept back then.   When I was about 12 she finally up and left him – ran away with the guy down the street.  Though they set up house only a few blocks away, the neighbour ladies ostracized her.  I believe my mom only ever spoke to her once.  I can’t tell you how sad that makes me, seeing someone punished for simply stepping away from abuse.

While the phrase domestic violence tends to suggest abuse between partners, the term rightly also includes abuse of children and elders.

This month we are looking at what it would be like to live as people of heart.  Speaking of domestic violence seems an odd way to approach the topic, but really, it’s not.  Most of us think of living with heart as a beautiful thing.  To me it suggests living fully and completely, about following our passion.  And in my imagining following a passion is a healthy thing that stops short of either obsession or addiction.  Living with heart is balanced and holistic, not perverted or twisted, and loving without being possessive or one dimensional.  But the concept of obsession and skewed perception is a big part of this issue under discussion.

My elder daughter is a fan of the Rachel Renee Russell’s Dork Diaries, a pre-teen novel series for girls about life in middle school.  In one book the heroine, Nikki, becomes the school advice columnist Miss Know-It-All.  One of the first letters she receives challenges her to deal with unrealistic obsessions:

Dear Miss Know-It-All

I am crushing on my Hollywood idol and some people think I’m obsessed.  Who isn’t crazy about him?…And nobody’s more perfect for him than I am! My friends don’t understand me either.  At school there’s a guy named Alex who, I guess, kind of likes me.  But I’m not interested because there’s only one boy for me…”

Signed Starstruck

Nikki, our young writer responds,

Dear Starstruck There’s nothing wrong with being in love, but sometimes people can mistake infatuation for love.  You may think you know your idol because of what you have read about him.  But you don’t “know him” know him.  Know what I mean?  Sure, every girl would give her right arm to date him!.  But all they see is his celebrity image, not the real him…I don’t think you need to give up being a fan, but why not crush on that nice guy in math class who makes you laugh?  Love has a way of showing up where you least expect it.

You see, she gets it, living with heart is about being present and connected with what’s real and often nearby.  It’s about living a life that is real – not one just conjured in the mind -for the mind is not always the most reliable judge.Sure there is lots of room for dreams and goals and aspirations, but heart-living does not depend on realizing those things exactly as you dreamt them.  It depends on fully living in the space between dreaming and realizing.  Living with heart in a healthy way is about loving yourself first and foremost, and then letting that love extend to lovers, children, family, friends, co-workers and even – in the form of empathy and compassion – to strangers you will never know.

But not everyone is able to live in a heart healthy kind of way – and here I use the term emotionally, not physiologically.

We probably all have a handle on the roots of domestic and sexual violence.  Psychiatrist Toby Goldsmith sums it up this way

Domestic violence may start when one partner feels the need to control and dominate the other. Abusers may feel this need to control their partner because of low self-esteem, extreme jealousy, difficulties in regulating anger and other strong emotions, or when they feel inferior to the other partner in education and socioeconomic background. 

Low self-esteem, jealousy, these are not the products of living with heart.  These qualities come when we project an imagined understanding of the world on those around us.  That imagined understanding is built on those negative qualities like low self-esteem and jealousy and.  The projection – like Starstruck’s crush on her idol, becomes a cause for concern when we decide we know what they people  close to us are thinking instead of simply asking them. We judge ourselves harshly and project those as the judgements of others.  Putting out our imaginings and determining them to be real is not heart-living.  It’s delusional living, ungrounded and self-absorbed.  It can become obsessional and dangerous. It can turn violent.

Dr Goldsmith continues:

Studies suggest that violent behavior often is caused by an interaction of situational and individual factors. That means that abusers learn violent behavior from their family, people in their community and other cultural influences as they grow up. They may have seen violence often or they may have been victims themselves.

Children who witness or are the victims of violence may learn to believe that violence is a reasonable way to resolve conflict … Boys who learn that women are not to be valued or respected and who see violence directed against women are more likely to abuse women when they grow up. Girls who witness domestic violence in their families of origin are more likely to be victimized by their own husbands.

Domestic violence is therefore a cycle, passed on from generation to generation.   And let’s be clear, the violence I describe is not all about fists.

Tina De Benedictis and Jallene Jaffe, two PhD’s writing for the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress compiled very detailed checklists of behaviours (http://www.aaets.org/article144.htm) to help people understand when they are being abused.   A couple of the less obvious indicators include seeing your loved one:

• threatening or intimidating to gain compliance

• destruction of the victim’s personal property and possessions, or threats to do so • embarrassing, making fun of, or mocking the victim, either alone within the household (or) in public • criticizing or diminishing the victim’s accomplishments or goals

• not trusting the victim’s decision-making

• saying hurtful things while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and using the substance as an excuse to say the hurtful things

• blaming the victim for how the abuser acts or feels

• making the victim feel that there is no way out of the relationship

These are strong reminder that all bruises – maybe most bruises – are not visible.  Emotional abuse is just as violent and just as crippling, because it damages the heart, the mind, and self-esteem.

What to do?

Here we come back to our theme for the month.  The core response to domestic violence around us is to live with heart ourselves and encourage it in others.  Living with heart reminds us to say that we do matter, no matter what anyone says to us or about us.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that our first UU Principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all people includes us too!  We are worthy of respect simply because we are human.  period. Full stop.  And if we are disrespected we need to either stand up or discontinue the relationship.  It hurts to do so, and it is very, very scary, but it just might save a life, or at least a soul.  Living with heart also reminds us of our second Principle, that we too are entitled to “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”

At the community level there is more sensitivity awareness and training in police, teachers and social workers than even a decade ago.  Police officers arriving at a domestic disputes have a lengthy set of questions they are expected to ask after separating the partners.  They are learning.  There is a long way to go, but writing off the police and other services is a mistake.  They can and often do help.

Oh, and in a specific matter, you can contact your MLA and urge them to support Laurie Blakemen’s Private Member’s Bill 202 currently before the legislature.  It would  reverse the ruling in the education department and make Gay Straight Alliances a protected part of every school.  The highest rate of suicides among teens is in GBLTQ kids, and GSA’s have been proven to cut that suicide rate dramatically.

In your own life, you can be aware of the symptoms of violence and abuse happening to those around you and be a good friend and neighbour.  Go over and borrow some sugar when things sound loud.  Call the police if they sound dangerous.  Talk – and more importantly listen- to friends and family who might be caught in an abusive relationship.  Name it for what it is – though that, too, takes courage. And have patience.  It often takes a long time for a victim to finally realize they have to change their lives.  I once worked for a women’s shelter.  Typically women there had to leave their partners three times before they finally cut the ties.

Let those who have been abused know they can come to you if it becomes too much and have a plan in case that time comes. There are lots of good and helpful sites on the internet or you can contact myself or Audrey Brooks and we’ll help point you toward the resources you need.

I’m not going go through an exhaustive laundry list of what to look for, they are easy to find.   But I will note that all of these resources are directed to those who have been victimized.  Nothing will really change until the abusers come to realize their crimes and get involved with some of the very effective programs that are coming online to help them break their cycles of abuse and find ways to defuse their anger and negative feelings.  And that won’t happen if they are allowed to get away with their abuse.  They must be called to account and confronted with the harm they have done.

You see, even people who live with heart get angry, hurt, lost and alone sometimes.  We all need ways to find our way back to the centre.  Good role models, good strategies that help us stop and ask what’s really going on before we cross a line, these can help.  That’s why the belated actions of the NFL and the prompt actions of the CBC are good things.  High profile examples of ‘just say no’ are a good start at changing the culture.   As nice as it would be if living with heart was  a state of being, for most of us it will remain a goal, a vision and a path we can only try to follow as best we can.